Survey - Nursing shortage still plagues Missouri

Thursday, August 7, 2003

COLUMBIA, Mo. -- Slightly fewer health-care jobs went unfilled this year, but a new report found Missouri still needs more nurses to address increased demand from aging baby boomers.

The report from the Missouri Hospital Association found the percentage of unfilled health-care jobs dipped to 9.3 percent this year from 10.2 percent last year. The report also looked specifically at nursing vacancies, which dropped slightly to 10 percent from last year's 11.1 percent.

The association warns that a lack of nurses, medical technicians, pharmacists and other trained health-care professionals has the potential to severely restrict the availability of health-care services now and in the future.

The core of the problem, according to the July 30 report, is the growing elderly population and the reduced pool of young people entering the work force.

"The first wave of baby boomers will begin placing greater demands on the health-care system in 2008," said Mary Becker, the association's senior vice president of communications, education and health improvement. "At the same time, the number of those entering the work force, compared to those ages 65 and older, is shrinking and will be cut in half by 2030."

Although shortages exist in all health-related professions, the bulk of the report focuses on Missouri's nursing shortage.

Becker said about 2,700 new nurses are needed to put an end to the shortage in the state.

A lack of capacity in the state's nursing programs and poorly prepared students contribute to the problem. About half the students in Missouri's registered nursing programs do not graduate, suggesting that students are ill-prepared to master challenging math and science courses, Becker said.

"Even if all of our schools were full, there wouldn't be enough graduates to fill the vacancies," Becker said, "so we're going to have to expand capacity or expand the training programs in some way."

Female profession

Another factor contributing to the shortage is that nursing traditionally has been perceived as a female profession. Women now have other opportunities, and Becker said not enough men are entering nursing to make up for the women going into other fields.

Becker said Missouri hospitals might begin introducing middle school children to nursing to encourage them to take the high school courses necessary to gain acceptance to a health-professions program.

Becker said that some nursing schools have implemented an accelerated nursing program for people who already hold a bachelor's degree and are looking to switch professions.

Hospitals also are doing more to retain nurses. For example, University Hospital in Columbia began offering pay incentives last year to nurses agreeing to remain there for three years.

Becker said some hospitals are improving their benefits and offering everything from tuition reimbursement to onsite day care.

"People trust us to keep them well, care for them with all the latest technology and medicine when they're ill, and provide the highest quality care at the least expensive cost," Becker said in the report. "They aren't aware, however, of all the challenges we face in meeting their expectations."

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